Britannia Season 2: still crazy after all these years

I had to remind myself how much I’d enjoyed the first season of this bonkers historical drama to persuade myself to (figuratively) tune in. Were NowTV smart to drop the whole series at once for a binge watch rather than putting it out weekly? There’s always the danger that you might forget between episodes how much you were enjoying it. Some kind of druid mojo at work, no doubt.

Mackenzie Crook is so good in this that they gave him a second part to play. By Season 3 he might be playing all the parts.

It’s a couple of years on from the Roman invasion of A.D. 43. The Romans are still living in tents, for the most part, complaining about what a shithole country Britain is, but some permanent structures are being built, even if the emperor encourages a certain exaggeration of details. And David Morrissey’s Aulus Plautius is up to something; something he’s so determined to see through that he’ll go to any lengths to ensure he does.

Meanwhile Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the Outcast, is still half-competently vision questing away with Cait, the girl from the prophecy, who suffers indignities (such as trying to fly off a cliff or having fish guts smeared on her face) but sticks around because of the thin shreds of evidence that the Outcast knows what he’s doing.

There are lots of meanwhiles. Too many. The druids are all over the place, there are hallucinogens being slipped into everyone’s water, and even the Emperor Claudius shows up, complaining about his piles. Then there’s the Roman legionary who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe, and even a visit from someone who can only be Joseph of Arimathea. There are already plenty of talking and flying heads, so the Fisher King might be somewhere in there. And if you squint a little bit there’s a wizard and someone who gets turned into a fish and you might be watching a fucked up Sword in the Stone.

Everything is here. It’s crazy, hilarious, brutal, with a killer soundtrack and enough face paint for a dozen village fêtes. And apples. There’s still no sense of geography. Are we in Colchester? Wales? King’s Landing? Honestly, it’s too much fun for me to care.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Okay, well. Throat clearing noises (*turning to hacking cough*). In spite of my long-term aversion of new fantasy trilogies, I started reading this, using my Kindle Unlimited subscription. That’s how they get you: volume 1 was free, volume 2 not so much. My first surprise was to learn that this author, whose books I had seen out of the corner of my eye for years, is actually Margaret Ogden, a prolific American writer. The second surprise was not actually much of a surprise: this trilogy is actually the first of at least three trilogies, all set in the same fictional world, and depending on how you count, there are five trilogies and one of the trilogies has four books in it.

Vietnam flashbacks to the Katherine Kerr Deverry series, which I began with enthusiasm in the mid-1980s, but read begrudgingly to its conclusion, fifteen books and 23 years later.

But here we are, on holiday, and short of reading material in the sense that I have dipped into and rejected a number of books recently. I’m halfway through Ben MacIntyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, at which point I lost interest. I started and abandoned the following: Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (just not in the mood); Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (existential boredom); and think I will abandon Stephen Baxter’s Time (Manifold) (again, just not in the mood). I don’t know what I want really. So, okay, here comes some high fantasy, some swords and sorcery without too many swords and only hints of sorcery in this, the first of the sequence.

And it must be okay because I stuck with it and even read with some enthusiasm. It’s a fish out of water tale, like The Goblin Emperor maybe, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. A young boy, bastard son of a prince, is abandoned to his father’s care, although never actually meets his father, who goes into disgraced exile. He’s then raised and educated in a fairly haphazard way until he falls under the care of the King’s assassin, and is trained in the ways of poisons and sneaking about.

It’s immediately interesting because if you’ve read anything like this before, you’ll know that the protagonist is usually heroic, noble, able, and certainly not the kind of person who drops poison into peoples’ drinks. Robin Hobbs’ world building is efficient but not burdensome. You get the sense of a bigger picture without being overwhelmed by exposition dumps, and I like the deft way she hints at the future importance of certain events and characters without spending too much time on them. The denouement of this is swift and chaotic, twisting and turning over a few pages without infuriating you as to the irrational decision making of key characters. You never feel like the thing is being padded for length like a Stephen King novel.

I’ve tried and been tempted recently by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series. I read The Dragonbone Chair but just didn’t feel the need to read on. I enjoyed the first bit of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, but didn’t feel like reading on after the third, The Last Argument of Kings became a bit of a drag. And while I was initially enthusiastic about Alex Marshall’s Crimson Empire series, I completely lost interest during the third book.

In other words, I know myself well enough to know that while the first in a series might grab me, I’ll almost inevitably be disappointed if I read on. I regret to this day that I didn’t get a time-machine visitation from my future self after I’d read the first 6 of Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, telling me to stop reading back then.

So I don’t know if I’ll carry on with Robin Hobb. I did really enjoy The Assassin’s Apprentice, but you can never really be sure. Is it better to leave it as a somewhat fond memory (The Dragonbone Chair)? Or to dig a trench and settle in for the long haul?

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This, for once, is not a sleep diary entry but a review of something I’ve wanted to read for a while, a science fiction mystery novel which was nominated for a number of major awards (though didn’t win). I didn’t buy it immediately, however, because The Incomparable podcast was only lukewarm about it, and it was a bit steep, price-wise, for something that might only be okay.

Now, I feel bad about what I’m about to say, because there’s a little message from the author at the end of the Kindle edition, saying, in effect, “I produced this ebook myself, please help me out by emailing corrections…”

Well.

The problem is, I have produced ebooks myself, and I’m sure there are problems all over them, but this book was originally published by Orbit/Hachette who are professional publishers, not amateurs like me. But there’s something weird about the ebook publication. It took a long time for this book to be available in electronic form, and for whatever reason the quality control was poor.

There are a couple or three recurring problems, which I mention because they kept throwing me out of the story and became irritating and distracting. The first is that there are random line breaks, new paragraphs beginning in the middle

of a sentence – like that. And the second is kind of the opposite problem, because all-too frequently, dialogue is muddled within the same paragraph instead of following the “new person, new paragraph” rule, and you keep having to stop to work out who is saying what. Finally, the third problem, though less common, also added confusion to dialogue: the occasional omission of opening speech marks meant that you kept having to track back to see where dialogue began.

All that said, I wonder if any reader has taken the time to email Ms Lafferty and supply corrections. I haven’t. There were, frankly too many, and they were too obvious. In the end, it reads like a book resulting from an OCR scan that nobody bothered to review/correct.

Now, that’s a huge chunk of my review dedicated to formatting problems. What about the actual novel?

The premise is that there is a star ship containing frozen colonists heading for an Earthlike planet. In this society, cloning is not unusual, but there are many rules, including that each person can only have one body at a time, and an updated “mindmap” of memories is transferred into the new body, which is grown to post-adolescence prior to activation. The ship is crewed by cloned humans, who all have reasons to want a clean slate, and the idea is that they simply get a fresh body when they need one.

The ship has been en-route for about 25 years when all six crew wake up in fresh cloned bodies, surrounded by the murdered corpses of themselves – but no updated mindmaps. So the plot is essentially an investigation into that crime, with the backstories of all the characters filled in. It’s an intriguing setup, but the execution is flawed.

One issue is that a major revelation towards the end is telegraphed from almost the beginning. Another is that the rules of this story (the clones have no recent memories, and have to use mindmaps from just before they boarded the ship) tie the plot in knots. So, for example, one character “knows” she has a safe containing several data drives including backups of the rest of the crew, even though her supposed most recent memory is of a party the night before they boarded. And then you get bits of dialogue where characters explain away these types of plot holes to each other.

In many ways, this reads like a first or second draft, both in the sense that these holes could be more elegantly closed and the revelation less obvious, and also in the sense that the formatting is bad.

In the end, this feels like a missed opportunity: almost but not quite great, which possibly explains why it was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards but did not win.

Mediocre TV in the platinum age

My tolerance of mediocre television has hit an all-time low. I breezed through Season 4 of The Magicians (see below) in a few days, mainly because I wasn’t watching much else at the time. There are a few average-but-watchable things around (in which category I do include Succession – see also below), but there are also programmes to which I take an almost instant dislike.

Catherine the Great, for example, which is on Sky/NowTV, and which stars Helen Mirren and a bunch of other (too) familiar faces. I gave it half an hour and as George in Seinfeld would say, it didn’t take. I just couldn’t see the point in paying attention to it. For a start, it seemed like the wrong end of Catherine’s life. Surely the interesting bit was when she, as a young woman, helped organise the palace coup against her own husband, the king? In broader terms, how much interest do I have in Russian royalty? I don’t mind an historical drama, but have little interest in the aristocracy. They’re all awful in the same ways, really. And if I were to watch something about the Russian royal family, I’d rather see something about the Bolshevik revolution and their execution/exile.

I lasted less time with the Winds of War World on Fire, the BBC’s splashy wartime drama. Again, I couldn’t really see the point of it. Helen Hunt disturbs me (have never seen the appeal), but that aside, there was something a bit naff about this drama. It had a soapy quality that did remind me of the kind of 70s and 80s mini-series represented by The Winds of War or Rich Man, Poor Man. But also, and I think this is the crux, everything seemed too clean.

The doubtless expensive shots of “periodised” 1940s streets with old double decker buses and vintage cars just looked too pristine. Everything looked too digital, too much like green screen artificial scenery, and the skies were too unsmoky, as were the cars and the pubs. You feel too much as if you’ve been dropped into a simulation.

Which is before we get to the live music portrayed in the club scenes. It was as if a 20-something with no knowledge of the history of popular music nor any experience of seeing actual live music in, say, a pub or a back room, had been asked to create “authentic” 1940s entertainment. It seemed wrong in every possible way. And again: not enough smoke. More smoke would seem an obvious fix for a lot of this stuff: apart from anything else, it could hide the fact that everybody’s clothes looked too new and all the surfaces too clean. We’d just come out of a depression, for fucksake.

I think it wants to be Babylon Berlin, but it can’t quite hack it.

Meanwhile, there are things that I have in the background and quite like having on, mainly because they’re not even trying to be prestige television. One such is SyFy’s Reverie, a show about people who get lost in simulated realities and the woman who rescues them. It’s Sara Shahi, for a start, and Dennis Haysbert: both decent actors. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but it doesn’t offend or annoy. A similar-feeling show was Manifest, which is about a bunch of people who board a flight which disappears for five years before it lands. It’s like a lot of these kind of shows, like The 400, or Flashforward: high concept, and quite fun, until it gets cancelled. It’s no Counterpart, but it’s watchable.

Why can I stand that kind of middle-of-the-road fare but get turned off by Helen Mirren and a bunch of white people in period frocks? I guess the simple answer is genre, but also the feeling that these shows aren’t trying to convince me they’re better than they are.

In short: don’t waste time watching overblown period dramas when you could be hooting your face off watching The Magicians.

Podcastination Nation

art

Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

Abbey Road 50th Anniversary edition

The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record was in 2009, 40 years after its release. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, EMI still existed, but is now defunct, broken up, off its twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. It is an ex-corporation. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, its producer, George Martin, was still alive. Then, we were told, it was a remastering, an improvement on the original CD release, which had been – we were now led to believe – substandard, rushed, whatever (even though The Beatles were among the last artists to release their music on CD, and then later on digital download). Of course, this is all just marketing. The real reason for a 50th anniversary “remix” is that they can renew mechanical copyright for another 50 years.

A remix is different from a remastering, how? Mastering is when you take the final mix and bounce it down to a stereo file, optimised for playback on consumer equipment, EQ’d to sound as sweet as possible, compressed and limited to sound loud but not too loud, with a dynamic range designed to fit within the limitations of the playback medium. Mastering is an art separate and distinct from record production and mixing. A mix engineer and a mastering engineer are often different people, different sets of ears listening for different things.

A remix, on the other hand, means a return to the multis, an opportunity to adjust the levels, to spread the stereo field. For example, the bass can be more prominent, or the bottom end more pronounced, or the instruments more cleanly separated across the channels. In 1969, still, the vast majority of music fans were buying the mono release; stereo was for nerds and millionaires, more or less.

And, lo, it came to pass, that there was a new Martin on the block, and although the kid was responsible for one of the worst things created in the Beatles’ name (the Las Vegas extravaganza, Love), he was once again allowed access to the vaults to tweak and twat about. 

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Of course, the real ears behind this are those of the remix engineer Sam Okell, and the Martin name is a rubber stamp, a message of reassurance to tell us that this is okay, really.

Abbey Road was already one of the Beatles’ best-sounding records. Only Please Please Me really reveals its limitations, they always sounded great; and from A Hard Day’s Night onwards, really great. So did it really need a remix? Not really, although it makes a bit of sense to separate the duelling guitars on “The End” a little bit, or to give the thing a boost for what passes for modern music systems.

Does it sound better? Better than the 2009? Better than the CD before that? Better than the vinyl? I’m not one of those people who thinks he can really tell the difference. My hearing tops out at 16kHz these days, and I’ve always had a bit of bass blindness. Couldn’t hear the kick drum when I played live with a band (maybe it was nerves).

The truth is, the equipment I listen to music on now is much, much worse than that I used even back in the 1980s, and ever since my oldest was born I’ve been without what you’d call a proper stereo. But then that’s the story of my life. Completely obsessed with music but usually listening on substandard equipment. A mono record player that couldn’t even combine the two channels of a stereo record into one, so that I never even heard the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until some time after I first bought it. My dad had a second hand stereogram, with a melted front panel (from the heat of the valves), and it sounded warm and woolly. And then eventually I got myself a NAD turntable, amp, and speakers. Not the greatest components, but the best I’d ever had or have. But then, in the 1980s, we started buying CDs, and then we’re later told that those early generation CDs were bad, badly mastered, too rotten deep down in the bits. And so then we get the remasters and the “Mastered for iTunes” and…

It becomes problematic. If, in 1969, people were listening to Abbey Road on ropey old mono record players, in 2019 we’re largely listening to compressed music on cheap earbuds, or playing through a few bluetooth speakers dotted around the house. The car speakers. Apple airpods. I do have some grown up studio reference monitors, but these are not really for relaxing listening, nor are they convenient. While the industry has been after perfect sound, the audience has been looking for the cheapest, most convenient, most portable way to listen to music: and always has.

So who is this really for? It’s for the corporation that owns the new mechanical copyright; it’s for a new generation who don’t know the original and couldn’t tell the difference; and it’s for anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about this music.

Every ten years, we need to think about Abbey Road. Is it their best? Some have said so. Is it better than the sum of its parts? Definitely. I’ve always taken note of the semi-detached Lennon. I like “I Want You (‘She’s so Heavy’)”, but if you look at it sideways, it’s someone who can’t be bothered to write lyrics anymore. Put it together with “Don’t Let Me Down” from earlier that same year, and he’s a man in full retreat from Dylan’s listen to the words, man, and he’s playing games with repetition. He’s got that, and “Come Together” and then it’s all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on Side 2. I love “Here Comes the Sun” but I’ve never been a big fan of “Something”, and there isn’t really a song on Abbey Road that I’d happily listen to, on its own, as a song. Which makes it a great album, because it needs, still, to be listened to as an album and not a collection of individual songs. “Polythene Pam” is as flimsy as cellophane, but it it slides between “Mustard” and “Bathroom” beautifully.

Back in 2009, the narrative was still that the group wanted to put out “one last” good record. That turns out to have been as much of a myth as the one about how Paul first met John at the Woolton village fête. Now we’re being told that they had no such thoughts about Abbey Road and this was just “the new record”, which only became, in hindsight, the last record. The way this narrative changes is interesting. It drifts with our “turns out” times. It still blows my mind that they recreated the Please Please Me cover shot in early 1969, the one that was later used on the Blue album. Something was in the air throughout that last year, from the day Ringo left the band during the White Album sessions, to that final bored/board meeting when the not-yet-thirty Beatles couldn’t agree on next steps.

In addition, this: part of the current narrative is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is rubbish. It’s certainly the case that the song took a lot of takes over several days to record, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Paul’s genius for creating lyrics out of the vernacular – always his greatest gift – is evident here: “Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-o-o-oan?” But also: “Painting testimonial pictures…” and the innuendo of “Late nights all alone with a test tube…”

Finally, the extra tracks and demos. Ever since the Anthology, it’s been clear that The Beatles weren’t Bob Dylan. They weren’t leaving any good stuff off the records in the way that he has done. So I’m happy enough grabbing a listen to a couple of them on the YouTube and don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t catch ‘em all.

Succession

I slept through most of the eighth episode of the second season of Succession. As I felt myself drifting off (it had been a hard day), I thought to myself that I could always watch it again; but when I woke up, I realised I was totally fine with missing it. I saw the first five minutes and the last five minutes and got the gist, as it were.

It’s had some rave reviews, has Succession, and it has got a kind of addictive, soapy quality to it. It’s yet another TV series about horrible rich people, but something about their horribleness, and the sense that you’re watching a roman-à-clef, with thinly disguised Murdoch idiot children bickering over their father’s empire, makes it more watchable than, say, Billions, or Downton Abbey.

But then it kind of goes along and keeps going but nothing much changes or happens. Oh, sure, there are corporate raids and shareprice crashes, whatever, but these are no more interesting than they are on the news, and its the human relationships that remain static and unchanging. This one is jealous of that one; this other one is irredeemably stupid; this one is flailing helplessly. And when the patriarch asks them, disingenuously, to give him an opinion on a matter of import, they’re too fucked up and ignorant and so desperate for his approval that they are hopeless.

But you can only take so much of this kind of psychodrama. Nobody learns anything, nobody changes, and anyway, you don’t care enough to want to stick around.

The problem with a show like this is that the reviewer is done and dusted after 1-4 episodes, but sticking around to watch the end is a different experience. One week the family fly here and fuck around and stab each other in the back; the following week they fly to London and do the same thing; and the week after that they fly to Dundee and do the same thing. And there a cringeworthy moments galore, and if you like to cringe, cringe away. But I’m rapidly losing interest.

In the real world, do we care who takes over from Murdoch père? Sure, the man has spread his poison for 50-odd years and is probably in some degree responsible for our Brexit mess, but I’m not one to point fingers at powerful individuals. Brexit was a collective enterprise. The people who work for these powerful men, who do their bidding, who write the words that result in the toxic discourse, who present the news programmes and apologise in Parliament and spread lies for money: these people are the real enablers. Succession shows this to an extent, with the patriarch’s immediate minions trying to outdo each other in venality and ruthlessness, but of course, the cancer spreads deep and wide.